As the threat of campus sexual assault still looms, here’s what Virginia colleges are doing

The summer is winding down and college students and their parents are worrying about textbooks, tuition, and GPAs. But there is another issue students might want to think about -- how to prevent college sexual assaults. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, 11.2% of students experience sexual assault on campus; college women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than to be robbed. In addition, a 2007 study reported that 50% of campus sexual assaults occur during the first four months of the school year, what is now dubbed the “red zone.”

Abigail Adcox, who recently graduated from Tabb High School in Yorktown, said that she visited several college campuses before choosing George Mason University in Fairfax. She noticed that all of the school tours included information on the sexual assault prevention and support services which made her realize how serious schools are taking the issue. Though she isn’t afraid of being attacked, she is more aware of the prevalence of the problem.

The issue of sexual assault on college campus has also received a lot of press lately.

Candice Jackson, the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights chief, apologized for her widely criticized remarks in a New York Times interview in which she said that sexual assault investigations are not “fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with advocates for victims and accused perpetrators in an attempt to reexamine how college campuses should treat rape allegations under Title IX. Title IX was created to combat discrimination on the basis of sex, which sexual harassment and assault are a part of. Colleges must comply with these rules or risk losing federal funding.

Some groups are concerned that the Department of Education may weaken prevention and support emphasis established under former President Barack Obama.

RAINN officials, who participated in the meetings, released a statement on July 13: “We respect the Department’s desire to examine the system and look for improvements. However, this should be done without dismantling what’s in place now and without undoing the good that has evolved over recent years. We must build on the progress already made. College administrators need more support and resources to navigate this issue and develop systems that work for their students. We all owe it to students to take this responsibility seriously.”

Officials and government institutions in recent years have taken a hardline on sexual assault and rape. In early 2014, Obama set up the “White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault”  to strengthen prevention measures, such as looking out for intoxicated classmates or “ask[ing] someone who looks like they may need help if they're ok.” Later that year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe set up his own task force, Combating Campus Sexual Violence, which strives to make sure that victims feel more comfortable reporting sexual assault.

“We need to send a clear message that we will not tolerate sexual violence at our schools and we will not accept a societal culture that condones it.,” Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said at the time.

Under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990 and Title IX, colleges must investigate claims of sexual assault. Colleges must also have Title IX coordinators to handle the claims. In Hampton Roads, Old Dominion University has a counseling center for victims of sexual assault, as well as Student Health Services that provide confidential care.

Christopher Newport University in Newport News has a Title IX center, where claims can be filed, as well as the Sexual Assault and Violence Education (SAVE) committee that connects victims with resources and support. Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk also has a counseling center and Tidewater Community College provides services through its Women’s Centers.

Other schools, such as Virginia Commonwealth University and Norfolk State University, require incoming students to complete online Title IX training, which includes information on laws, defining sexual assault and rape, and quizzes that students must pass. NSU also includes a Campus Safety Week, providing more resources to students.

“If we give students information, they can make better decisions,” said Tracci Johnson, Title IX Coordinator and dean of students at NSU. “So, that is our objective: To reduce the amount of sexual assaults and so that students understand and know where to go, when it happens, where they can go for assistance.”

Marlon McKay, a rising freshman at VCU, said that he was startled by what he learned when he attended freshman orientation this summer. In addition to the online course, other information sessions were provided for freshmen.

“They had survivors’ testimonies in videos,” he said. “It was a little unnerving, because they were real people. You know this can actually happen.”

He appreciated that the program gave students  ways to help, such as calling the police or stepping in themselves.

“They pushed us not to be bystanders.”